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Ibn Khaldun and Comte
Discontinuity or Progress

The Muqaddimah - Arab script

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Occident and Orient

In this paper, I want to promote Ibn Khaldun as a social theorist by lining out how and why Ibn Khaldun could be included into an early session of a social theory class. Instead of reading Hobbes and Comte under the title Two Legacies: Order and Positivism: Hobbes and Comte (as suggested in Tom Gieryn’s social theory graduate class at Indiana University in 1999) I would suggest reading and comparing Ibn Khaldun and Comte. The title of the session could be Circularity or Progress: Ibn Khaldun and Comte.

The central piece of Ibn Khaldun’s work is The Muqaddimah, which was completed in 1377. In this text he develops a theory of what he calls ‘ilm al-umran’, which could be translated as the study of social organization or civilization[1] or as the science of human association/the science of culture[2]. He sees himself as an Arab scholar, focusing on society as he experiences it in Northern Africa and in Moorish Spain – similar to Hobbes and other European classics who relate to the experiences they made in their environments. In this context, I want to pick out two arguments that can explain why one should encounter Ibn Khaldun in a social theory class. (a) History – and especially the history of social science – tends to be treated as if it had its origins only in Europe. This ignores the fact that other cultures, especially those of Arab and Indian origin, also had an impact on the development of ideas in Europe. There is some dispute on the question how far this impact is going, but there seems to be evidence that early sociologists like Montesquieu and Gumplovicz were aware of Arab writings in general and of Ibn Khaldun in particular.[3] Bringing Ibn Khaldun into the syllabus would reflect these contributions and acknowledge post-colonialist critiques at least to some extent. (b) I would see one of the goals of a graduate class on sociological theory in presenting to the students a view on the field of sociology that shows them how sociological theory is rooted in its contemporary culture. Ibn Khaldun is an excellent example for this embeddedness as he embarks on the analysis of medieval North Africa. His texts are a vivid example, showing how a new perspective of one’s own environment can be reconstructed through the use of sociological argumentation.

In the following paragraphs I want to make some more specific comparisons between Ibn Khaldun and Hobbes – showing that Ibn Khaldun may be a better point of reference for later theoretical developments in sociology – and between Ibn Khaldun and Comte – demonstrating possibilities for discussion in class or in an exam. Finally, I will examine to what extent three basic dichotomies (as they were presented in the first session) can be applied to Ibn Khaldun’s writing.

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Nature or History

Hobbes builds his Leviathan upon deductive reasoning. He makes a set of basic assumptions concerning human nature[4], and starting from these assumptions, he constructs the necessity of having a sovereign to prevent society from chaos and universal war of everyone against everyone. Ibn Khaldun’s historical argumentation contrasts clearly when compared to Hobbes’ deductive reasoning. Ibn Khaldun focuses on social processes determining the rise and fall of dynasties in the Arabian World, he follows a naturalistic and inductive mode of argumentation. In Hobbes’ understanding, the principle of the sovereign is valid in every case, and each political system has to conform to these principles if it wants to prevent a fallback into chaos.[5] The historical examples given by Ibn Khaldun suggest a different, relativistic interpretation. Each specific culture and each specific phase of the rise and fall of the caliphate shows a corresponding social structure; thus it is characterized by a particular type of leadership.[6] His analysis follows genuinely sociological (and historical) procedure; consequently I would argue that Ibn Khaldun is much nearer to today’s definition of a sociologist than Hobbes.

Furthermore, I would interpret the concept of an abstract contract establishing the foundations of society, as devised by Hobbes and Locke, as an attempt to promote a certain model of the state. It is widely received by political scientists as such and it was of a great importance for the conceptualization of human rights and democratic constitutions. In contrast to this, I claim that Ibn Khaldun’s dynamics of social change (based on his ‘raw stuff’, the asabiyah or group feeling [7]) are more closely related to sociological concepts (for example Tönnies Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft). The deductive reconstruction of a distinct political system stands opposed to a flexible conceptualization of forces that shape societies into different forms. Therefore, Ibn Khaldun’s theory can provide greater insight into the history of a more distinctive sociological tradition – the construction of social change.

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Comparing Comte and Ibn Khaldun [8]

A basic aspect of the methodological approach of Comte and Ibn Khaldun is their discussion of the nature of truth. In what aspect do they follow a similar route in forwarding the legitimacy of their truth claims?

Both focus on scientific method as being different from everyday perception:

If it is true that every theory must be based on observed facts, it is equally true that facts cannot be observed without the guidance of some theory. Without such guidance, our facts would be desultory and fruitless […] [9]

If this is so, the normative method for distinguishing right from wrong in historical information on the grounds of (inherent) possibility or absurdity, is to investigate human social organization, which is identical with civilization. We must distinguish the conditions that attach themselves to the essence of civilization as required by its very nature; the things that are accidental (to civilization) and cannot be counted on; and the things that cannot possibly attach themselves to it.[10]

Perception has to be guided by theory to establish scientific facts in a legitimate manner. In this way, both authors claim a specific and superior epistemology; they regard everyday experience as prone to illusion, misinterpretations and deception.

Notwithstanding this similarity in creating superior truth claims for science, I see a central difference between their conceptions of science. Ibn Khaldun emphasizes discontinuities and repetitions in social processes. Berber tribes rise to might and power, raze cities, settle down, go through a transformation from a state of high internal cohesion and a strong sense of asabiyah to a state of internal conflict and decadence and finally get overthrown by a new and strong tribe.[11] For Ibn Khaldun, this typical development can be disrupted by special events like wars with rival dynasties and it is also influenced by environmental conditions like climate. He also highlights the possible dangers that lie in drawing conclusions from contemporary social facts and accordingly he stresses the importance of social change.[12]

Comte, to the contrary, lays his emphasis on the concept of progress. He constructs a linear advancement of knowledge: Knowledge is going through theological and metaphysical phases until the condition of positive philosophy is eventually reached. Once this state is achieved, it is irreversible, only further quantitative additions to human knowledge can be made, not a qualitative change.[13] I would interpret this central difference between Ibn Khaldun and Comte as a case that displays the difference between a typical example of European (and eurocentristic) concepts of progress, rationalization and modernity and non-European concepts of society or social change. For that reason it ‘preshadows’ claims later made by feminist and postmodern critiques and thereby enriches the syllabus: Discussion in class or in an exam could focus, for example, on the question why a theory like Ibn Khaldun’s had to be ‘discovered’ by social scientists and historians in the 19th century and how these discoverers interpreted Ibn Khaldun’s work.

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Dichotomies and the Muqaddimah

Dichotomies are well suited to demonstrate the particularities and the strengths and weaknesses of social theories. I want to pick out some of them and locate Ibn Khaldun’s work in their context.

Method or Experience: A considerable part of the Muqaddimah shows Ibn Khaldun’s distrust regarding oral reports – in his view they are probably distorted either by lack of facts or through the interests of the reporter. I found no clues that he analyzes them as part of a culturally specific discourse. He sees distortions of historical facts not as clues in their own right but as lies that are obstacles to the search for truth. Method as a means overrides experience in itself.

Macro or Micro: I do not think it would be helpful to cast Ibn Khaldun’s work into this form. In the course of his book, he persistently changes perspective. The asabiyah is reproduced on an individual level, but the strength of it also depends on the historical phase in which the leading family or the current dynasty is embedded. Urban and rural life is described in general terms but concrete aspects of everyday life and specific professions are also examined. Urbanity is an important category for Ibn Khaldun and I would locate the study of urbanity at a meso level.

Is there an ‘other’ or not?: Ibn Khaldun conceives the ‘other’ at three levels. (a) In developing his theory, he pays attention to the fact that he is only writing about the character of developments in North Africa and that customs and developments in other, alien regions may notably follow different patterns.[14] (b) In the relationship between Arabs and Berbers. These two groups are alien to each other and constantly get into conflict. And (c) in the concept of asabiyah. Asabiyah is tied to family relationships; whoever is not included in this system is an outsider, one who is not nearly as trustworthy as a member of the clan or family is. If the asabiyah weakens, the doom of the clan and perhaps of the dynasty is near.

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What to Read?

Altogether, these are approximately 101 pages. As the writing is not very abstract and sometimes even entertaining, I think the amount is manageable for a graduate class.

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References and Proposed Readings

If you are looking for more information regarding the work of Ibn Khaldun on the web you should check out this page: Ibn Khaldun on the Web.

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